Bias Against Torture

In many situations it would be better to impose a punishment of torture than imprisonment.  The fact that the U.S. justice system rejects torture as a punishment is the result of an anti-torture bias.

Torture has two benefits over imprisonment.  It’s cheaper for the state to impose and it doesn’t prevent the criminal from engaging in useful labors (such as parenting and working at a job) for long periods of time.   To determine who should be tortured as opposed to imprisoned we need to consider the benefits to society of imprisonment. 

Prison serves three purposes: deterrence, retribution and incapacitation.  Fear of prison deters many would-be criminals from committing crimes.  Fear of torture, however, could do likewise.  Imprisoning criminals can satisfy victims’ desires for vengeance and so make victims feel better.  Torturing criminals could, however, also satisfy victims’ desires for retribution.  Finally, prison prevents imprisoned criminals from attacking people who are not in prison.  The primary disadvantage of torture is that it doesn’t result in the incapacitation of criminals and so leaves them free to strike again.

Many convicted criminals, however, don’t pose a risk to society.  Men convicted of securities fraud, for example, are frequently barred from the stock market and so their freedom won’t endanger society.  Because of its far lower cost, the U.S. should torture rather than imprison criminals who don’t need to be removed from society.

Some would argue that it’s excessively cruel to torture criminals.  But both prison and torture impose costs on criminals.  Why is one type of cost crueler than the other?  If a convicted criminal is indifferent between receiving a certain type of torture or being imprisoned for a given period of time then why would it be excessively cruel to torture but not to imprison?

In the U.S. many prisoners face a significant chance of being raped by a fellow inmate.  This high chance doesn’t seem to bother many people, and is often the subject of jokes.  Yet our society considers it barbaric for a criminal justice system to deliberately torture criminals in ways that may well impose less physical and emotional costs than rape does.  I find these conflicting moral views about torture and imprisonment to be irrational.

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